It’s a natural reflex to blame the Brits and indeed, there’s a good case to be made for it time and again. But the career locally of Jim Prior, the senior Conservative who was secretary of state from October 1981 to September 1984, a month before the Brighton Bomb, is stark evidence that the time for conciliation had not yet come and conventional politics was impotent.
The best Jim Prior obit is written by the veteran Julia Landon in the Guardian. Memory has its advantages, not least in obituary writing, although Julia’s beat was back in Westminster, where Jim was well known as a shrewd operator, although managing the transition from Heath to Thatcher with difficulty.
Prior came from the tradition of Tory gentry with a social conscience who in better days might have struck a chord in Northern Ireland. He was a self confident figure like Willie Whitelaw and like him already came with an established reputation. But unlike Whitelaw, Prior the unreconstructed “wet” failed to establish more than a formal working relationship with Margaret Thatcher. He did tell me though that he was touched when Thatcher rang him up to wish him a Happy Christmas one year when he felt obliged to spend the festive season in Northern Ireland. He and his wife Jane who died last year enjoyed the proconsular role. Hillsborough which was the nearest the province came to his home environment and he regularly attended the parish church with its old Governor’s stall.
The Prior approach made little impact because events in 1981 had grown even darker since direct rule in March 1972. A conciliator by instinct he favoured concessions to the hunger strikers although he played little part in its ending weeks after his appointment in October 1981.
Shortly after his arrival he got his first taste of unionist bitterness. As a conventional Anglican he was deeply shocked when was hissed and booed as he knelt forward to pray at the funeral service for the assassinated Rev Robert Bradford MP. Relations with unionists were therefore destined to be ill fated. The most modest attempts at an “initiative” with the SDLP were damned as IRA appeasement.
New nadirs were being reached all the time. 17 killed in London parks in July 1982. 17 killed in the Droppin’ Well bomb planted by INLA in Ballykelly in December the same year – just two of the worst in Northern Ireland and England.
I was with him and other correspondents when he threw up his papers one day in 1983, as news came through of the assassination of Edgar Graham the young academic lawyer and Unionist Assembly member outside Queen’s library who had been a strong opponent of concessions to the hunger strikers. This was one of a spate of IRA assassinations of Unionist politicians beginning with the murders of the former Stormont Speaker Sir Norman Stronge and his son James in early 1981. It provided no background for political deal making.
In this unpromising climate his long experience of trade union conciliation nevertheless prompted him to have another go at the purely Northern Ireland settlement he called ” rolling devolution ” – though where it would finally roll to was never explained. No one including Thatcher believed in it and they barely went through the motions. Its main achievement was to give the emerging DUP an effective parliamentary platform of protest .
He made little impact with the SDLP who boycotted the “Prior Assembly” and moved south to help devise the Forum for a New Ireland convened in Dublin Castle. Meanwhile a British-Irish Intergovernmental Council was set up in which Prior played little part but was to lead to the controversial Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 long after Prior had gone.
IRA historian and columnist Brian Feeney’s assessment in the Irish News has more than a grain of truth in it but as so often he is too dogmatic, when the jury is still out on Thatcher’s role in the hunger strike.
Political historian Brian Feeney described him as a “breath of fresh air” when he was appointed to the north and a man who helped “transform” the prison regime following the 1981 hunger strikes.
“The trouble was he was in a terrible position because Margaret Thatcher blocked everything he did,” he said.
“Any attempt he made to bring in change she was opposed to it, because she sent him over here to fail.
The Maze prison regime did change partly thanks to Prior, although almost certainly it would have changed anyway.
His own verdict on the Troubles quoted in the Belfast Telegraph was typical Jim Prior, equivocal, perhaps realistic, but hardly definitive.
“Violence probably does work, it may not work quickly and may not be seen to work quickly, but in the long run one has to look back and say it did work.
“I know we did not win it but I am not certain the other side won,” he told documentary maker Peter Taylor.
“As time went on it became possible for both sides to get into a position where it was easier to make peace than make war.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London